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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Hope in Dark Times

When they rebuilt the main synagogue in Cologne after the War, there was much discussion about which Biblical text to use for the inscription on the outside of the building. In the end they decided to use the words from Zechariah that we read in our synagogues on the Shabbat in the middle of Hanukkah: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts’ (4:6).  

It’s one of Judaism’s great prophetic sentiments – filled with the wishfulness, the hopefulness, that we could live in a world where force, aggression, warfare, violence do not penetrate into every crevice of our lives, are not the ill-fated routes through which change takes place, are not the deep background throb resonating through society, generation after generation. One can see how, after the destruction wrought both by force of arms and murderous brutality in the Second World War, that quotation might have appealed to those looking for a message to take into the future.

The quotation though does contain an irony. The prophet voices this semi-pacifist wish about how change might happen  - ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit’ -  in the name of Adonai Tzeva’ot, the ‘Lord of Hosts’. But Tzeva’ot refers to battalions, battle line-ups: Adonai Tzeva’ot is the God of war, the God that inspires people to fight, to take up arms, the God that fighters often believe is on their side, because their side is right and godly and the enemy are godless evil-doers who refuse to see the light.  

So we are given a prophetic text that has a tension built into it. A God is associated with the fantasy that aggression is the way to solve problems is made to say, ‘No, no, it’s not through might, military aggression, or through mis-use of power, force, that you are to proceed, ki im b’ruchi, but through My spirit, through the breathe of life with which I animate you and all of being’. It is as if the prophet suddenly intuits that the God who has in the past sponsored aggression on His behalf is now dis-arming himself - is saying, as it were, ‘No, I’ve got this wrong: I need to draw on, and you need to draw on, something else within Me, within you, something on the side of life, something creative, the divine ruach that was there from the beginning of time, the spirit of life that the Genesis story talks about as being present as Creation itself takes place, ‘hovering’ over the waters as darkness is dispelled and light is brought into being.’ (Genesis 1:2)

This pivotal prophetic verse is planted in the middle of a dialogue between the prophet and the divine messenger, the malach, who prompts him throughout the Book of Zechariah into new understandings. On this occasion we have the imagery of the menorah, the gold candelabrum in the Temple, and its lamps, and – like ‘someone wakened from sleep’, the text says (4:1) – the prophet has his eyes opened, and he’s moved to wonder: ‘what is this symbol really about?’  

And in a moment of enlightenment, of illumination, he sees the menorah and its lights in a new light, a new realisation: ‘If God breathes ruach through all of life, all of humanity, including oneself, it can make no sense to attack or kill other human beings in the name of that God, for those others contain the spirit of God within them, just as you do.’ This is a breakthrough moment, a new religious consciousness, coming through the prophet, in the form of a dream or a vision or whatever it is that happens within the psyche of Zechariah. A moment of understanding about the divine that, more than 2000 years on, many so-called religious people just can’t grasp, or live in the light of.  

Here we are, in the middle of our Festival of Light; and here we are, in the middle of a world that can seem to get darker and darker, month by month, sometimes week by week: just this week we had the Sydney cafe attacks, and the Taliban’s callous slaughter of schoolchildren and their teachers; and over recent months we’ve had those tit-for-tat murders by Arabs and Jews in Israel and the West Bank; and then there’s been the barbarism of ISIS, not only the gory videoed beheadings, but the ongoing (largely unreported) murders of Kurds in Iraq, as well as Sunni civilians, and Sunni tribesmen – and these are their own Sunni co-religionists who are being killed, for not being God-fearing enough. Or devout in the so-called ‘right’ way.  And we light our candles and quote ‘Not by might, nor by power’ – knowing that we still live in world saturated in aggression, in which might and power, in the name of religion, in the name of a God who is thought of as going into battle for our point of view, is a frightening and toxic element in so many places.  

 And lest you think I’m concentrating mainly on Islamic aggression - and I've passed over the latest atrocities from Boko Haram, of mass murder and kidnapping  - we also saw this week – from the country which has ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on its banknotes – the publication by the US Senate of the report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after 9/11, which details the systematic torture of suspected terrorist detainees, in at least one instance to the point of death.
 
This was a programme run not only by the perversely labelled ‘intelligence community’ but one that relied heavily (as Physicians for Human Rights put it) ‘on the participation and active engagement of various health professionals’ – doctors, psychologists – ‘to commit, conceal and attempt to justify these crimes.’ Men and women for whom that patriotic song ‘God Bless America’ presumably provides a suitably comforting background cover story to justify the unjustifiable. (That song, by the way, is one of the more ambiguous Jewish gifts to America – it was originally written by Israel Beilin in 1918, with the lyrics revised in 1938. You might know him better by the name he took on, Irving Berlin.)  

Why are we lighting our candles? What are we doing? What are we saying? Each night an additional flame is lit, and in our homes this archetypal celebration of the triumph of light over the forces of darkness is being enacted. We know that the symbolism is universal. Every culture has its rituals of renewal and regeneration, often embracing the motifs of fire and light. There is, it seems, a deep human need to witness to the renewal of hope – in spite of the darkness around us, literal and metaphysical and moral. And maybe to spite the darkness. Diwali has passed, and Christmas is upon us, and we sense this universal need, around the winter solstice, to celebrate light and renewal. We are drawn into, seduced into, this symbolic realm: we deeply want reasons to feel hopeful when there is darkness around us.  

Hanukkah does offer us this hopefulness – but you have to work hard to get at it. After all, this eight-day holiday originates in a historic memory of an ancient military victory in a guerrilla campaign fought against foreign (Graeco-Syrian) occupiers. Against all the odds, a group of zealous anti-assimilationist Jewish religious nationalists took back the Temple in Jerusalem and re-dedicated it to their God - Hanukkah means ‘Dedication’. We don’t like to think of Judah the Maccabee and his followers as religious terrorists, because terrorists are always ‘others’, not ‘us’. But we have to struggle with this uncomfortable historical knowledge, just as the rabbis in the Talmud in later generations struggled with it: that it was through armed raids on the occupying enemy that the Temple was re-captured. 

The rabbis knew that Hanukkah began as a sort of old soldiers’ holiday – like an IRA re-union – but they gradually shifted the emphasis away from the role armed rebellion had played and highlighted certain spiritual values and ideals. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit’ was their choice of text to be read in synagogues at this time of the year. And they promoted too the legend that we all now associate with Hanukkah, that when the Temple’s candelabrum (the Menorah) came to be re-dedicated, there was but a single flask of undefiled oil to be found, enough for one day only. And yet – a miracle! – it lasted for eight days, till fresh supplies arrived. 

So the Talmudic rabbis used this ‘wonder tale’ (German has an excellent term for these kind of stories: wundermärchen) to justify the continued celebration of the ‘festival of lights’. It’s a typical example of rabbinic creativity – they suppressed Hanukkah’s militaristic origins in favour of its symbolic and metaphoric resonances: they stressed the faith required to persevere against the odds and to resist a dominant culture which had different values and priorities; they promoted the belief that sparks of divine light in us can outshine the darkness grafted to our souls; they dared us to have the audacity to hope that human goodness is more powerful than human destructiveness.   

And of course there are times when that symbolic flask of oil, representing the human spirit, does spark into life - and we see the divine qualities of care and compassion shining out. We saw it is Sydney during the week when one woman tweeted a message to her Muslim neighbour while the siege was going on, ‘I’ll ride with you’, because of a concern that there might be an anti-Muslim backlash. And that tweet was re-tweeted – and within 4 hours 150,000 Australians had offered this under the hashtag ‘illridewithyou’. 

People want to believe in something hopeful in dark times. We need this in order to keep us going. Witness the prevalence of the story about the unofficial Christmas truce in the trenches in 1914, the sharing of carols, the fraternising with the enemy, that legendary game of football (which probably never took place) - but as the director John Ford has one of his characters say in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ : "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.  

Judaism is pretty good at that. We've been doing it for millennia. So let’s use the rest of Hanukkah – whatever its historical and legendary background – to enjoy its symbolism, and be inspired by its symbolism: let’s keep the divine sparks within us alight, living out the values that we know are God’s true values: compassion, care, love, generosity, righteousness. ‘Not by might, nor by force, but by My Spirit’. This remains our hope when all around seems dark.

 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 20th, 2014]

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Israel, Racism & the Diasporic Imagination

Fifty years ago this weekend you could have heard a great sermon. You would’ve had to have gone to St Paul’s Cathedral to hear it, 6th December 1964, and you would’ve been one of 3,000 people gathered there. You would have heard the preacher build up slowly, softly, a low drawl to his voice, but with gathering momentum; and, as The Times reported, you’d have heard the tempo increase and the words coming ‘tumbling out in a flood of oratory. Biblical quotations rolling off’ the speaker’s tongue, who ‘was actor, poet and preacher all at the same time’.  (Those were the days).

Martin Luther King took his text from the Book of Revelation, in the New Testament, and although it is not one of his most famous speeches it contains all his distinctive themes about justice and oppression and the quest for freedom, that renowned fusion in him of religious vision and political passion, or maybe we can say religious passion and political vision, because for him political and social action was the arena in which religious ideals were to be enacted – he had a profoundly Judaic understanding of how the two are intertwined, necessarily.
There is of course a private domain for religious feeling, and spiritual experience and yearning – but the ways in which the personal dimension of religiosity is then enacted in the outer realm of action has always been foundational for Judaism as a religious culture. As this week’s Torah text reminds us, Jacob doesn’t just mourn the loss of his beloved Rachel, he sets up a pillar on her grave:  a public memorial although it is a personal, private loss (Genesis 35: 20).
And in this week in which the State of Israel has teetered on the brink of a truly alarming decision to change its basic laws to declare that its national rights would be extended only to Jews, it is worth re-calling King’s message, repeated by him countless times in various forms; that, as he put it, ‘God is not interested in the freedom of white, black or yellow men, but in the freedom of the whole human race.’ And perhaps even more pertinent now to Israel’s historical situation were his words that ‘We must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, substituting injustice of one type for that of another.’ Although he wasn’t talking at all about Israel as a state, that’s a prescient encapsulation of the whole drama of Israel’s short existence as a nation state, born out of disadvantage but slowly, gradually, and now to many eyes, ‘substituting injustice of one type for that of another’. 
The new laws which have been proposed – on hold now, maybe, because of the rebellion in the cabinet which has led Netanyahu to sack his dissenters and call an early election in March – are in direct contradiction to the democratic principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that the state was to be ‘based on the principles of liberty, justice and freedom expressed by the prophets of Israel’ to ‘affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.’  The great irony of the proposed legislation is that it is being done in the name of Israel’s Jewish identity, but to deny national rights to the 20% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish is in direct opposition to the Torah laws which state that you are to have ‘the same rules for yourself and the foreigner residing amongst you’ (Numbers 15: 15-16, 29). To promote the so-called Jewish character of the state in a way that is against both the letter and the spirit of Torah is breathtakingly hypocritical , to say nothing of morally crass.
We should be under no illusion that what will start by the downgrading of Arabic from its current status as an official language of Israel will not be the end of it. Although it is a historical analogy I am loathe to bring to bear here – because it can be misused by those who harbour a hatred of Israel - we do remember how the anti-Jewish legislation in Germany was instituted in stages during the 1930s: first of all came the barring of Jews from the civil service and various professions (1933); followed by quotas on Jewish students at universities and in the medical and legal professions; next came the Nuremberg laws prohibiting relationships between Jews and Aryans, and the holding by Jews of any public office (September 1935); in 1937 and 1938 Jews were forbidden to enter into Aryan areas – Rachel’s Tomb by the way is already in an Arab-free zone, it has a huge 12 foot concrete and barbed wire wall around the road leading to it in Bethlehem, and there is military security you have to pass through  to get anywhere near it (but I digress) - Jewish doctors couldn’t treat non-Jews, eventually Jews couldn’t own radios, go to public swimming pools... well, I don’t need to rehearse the way a country slips into racist and semi-fascistic legislation to manage ‘alien’ presences in its midst.  
One example of the pernicious atmosphere that is now present there is the recent arson attack, last weekend, on the Yad B’Yad bilingual school in Jerusalem, the only school in the city where Jews and Arabs learn together. On the wall, lest we are in any doubt about the mindset behind this, was spray-painted the slogans ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘There is no co-existence with cancer’.
So those of us who have always believed that Israel was both a historical and moral necessity get more and more frightened, more and more disturbed, more and more angry, when we see the erosion of core democratic principles being enacted or mooted within Israel. Ethnic transfer is now openly suggested by some parliamentarians – and who knows who will hold the balance of power come March?  and what would we do then, we Jews in the diaspora? Are there no red lines for us?
Does there not come a point when we Jews in the diaspora who still have a wish for, a faith in, the Torah’s vision for Israel being a ‘light to the nations’, a model for how to live in the world, where justice and compassion and righteousness are the guiding principles of society, does there not come a point when the nation state that carries this numinous name ‘Israel’ so degrades its Jewish values that we say ‘Enough’? Enough injustice, enough apologetics, enough name-calling any criticism as anti-semitism (or Jewish self-hatred), enough legalist attempts to justify the morally unjustifiable.
When do we say that only if the Jewish national project is a project congruent with the messianic spirit of those prophets of Israel mentioned in the Declaration of Independence will it be a project worthy of our unyielding love and our unbreakable support? Are we allowed to think that? To say that?
When I read the texts of our tradition, a sedrah like the one we read today (Genesis 32:4 – Genesis 36), which reminds us that the patriarch Jacob metamorphosed through his life from being a trickster, a ‘heel’ (the root meaning of Ya’akov), to this ambiguous, numinous name of Yisrael, ‘the one who wrestles with the divine’, ‘the one who struggles to bring the divine into the world’; and when I read how he fought with his brother Esau but eventually becomes reconciled with his brother after a lifetime of deception; when I read how to gain the name ‘Israel’ he wrestles with something, internal and external (the text can be read in different ways), a wrestling that leaves him with an injury, a limp - he staggers away from this encounter with a wound that he carries for the rest of his life – when I read this narrative, I recognise its power as a story that applies to each one of us as we journey through life.
Do we not recognise ourselves, battling with our demons, wrestling to enact our visions, our deepest beliefs, carrying the scars, the pain,  of life’s journey? For we can’t avoid the pain: Jacob is bereaved here in our text - and he still has all the tragedy  to come of his loss of his favourite son Joseph, torn to pieces by a wild animal, or so he thinks when his sons bring back to him the bloody coat of many colours; though the wild animals are his sons, or some of them. In this sedrah, chapter 34, Simeon and Levi massacre the men-folk of Shechem after the rape of their sister - who would be a parent of this bunch, born of four different mothers, the mothers fraught with rivalry, and the sons too?
And we think dysfunctional families might be a modern phenomenon; but they are our ‘First Family’, our mythic ancestors.  What a mess they were, what a mess they made of their lives, the Torah doesn’t hide it from us – yet through it all something is working itself out, some vision of formulating a way of being as a people, ‘a nation and a company of nations’ (35:11), who will inherit a  land – and this is where the individual story becomes collective – a land on which they are to try to live ethically, try to live having learnt from mistakes, trying to live in ways that reflect the divine spirit which animates the whole story, that spirit of El Shaddai, God Almighty, who speaks to Jacob here (35:11) but evolves too as the characters evolve, evolves into Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’chanum, erech apayim v’rav hesed  (Exodus 34:6) – ‘the Eternal, the  Spirit that animates all of being with the potential for compassion and grace and the capacity to bear suffering without retaliation and filled with love and kindness’. I think of all this when I read these texts, they are the underpinnings of Jewish identity, complex and ambiguous, but truthful to life in their complexity and ambiguities.
This is the vision that we in the Diaspora, we Jews who inhabit the faith of Judaism without committing ourselves to live in the land of Israel, or the State of Israel, this is the vision we try to stay true to, to uphold, try to live out in our own lives; and it’s the vision that we have to unashamedly insist that those who speak in the name of Jewishness in the so-called Jewish national home also uphold, and commit themselves to. Their failure to do so, and the continuation of the path they have set themselves on, does not bear thinking about. Though thinking about it we have to: thinking and speaking about it - the unbearable being what the prophets of Israel did find themselves speaking about, and warning about, much good did it do them; though they didn’t do it for their own good, but for the sake of the integrity of their people, and their faithfulness to the Holy One of Israel and that divine vision of how people are meant to treat each other in the down-to-earth realities of everyday life.
‘Substituting injustice of one type for that of another’ cannot be the way forward. Let’s hope, and pray, and find ways of ensuring, that our darkest fears, born out of our historical diasporic memories, do not come to pass in this Promised Land that threatens to become another Egypt.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, December 6th, 2014]

Monday, 17 November 2014

Loss, Mourning and the Illusion of 'Closure'


The name Martin Perl almost certainly won’t mean anything to you, as it meant nothing to me before I came across it a few weeks ago in an obituary. I’m quite drawn to obituaries, to see a description of the shape of a life, to see how much suffering and success and drama is packed into a life, to see the marriages, the awards and achievements, the disappointments, all packaged up in 750 words. A whole life - it could be any of us - the decades unfolding and speeded up, and in less than five minutes it’s over. We know that the smooth narrative of an obituary is a form of storytelling, fiction-making:  it gives us the facts, the outer life, it can give us the flavour of a life – if it is well written – but inevitably it misses the essence of a person, who can never be summed up like this, because we all always more than the descriptions of us can ever contain.
Martin Perl won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1995 for his discovery of the tau lepton - ‘a heavy version of the electron’. (I am now much the wiser). His story in some ways is very familiar – born in Brooklyn, New York, son of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, served in the American forces in World War II then made his way through college in that huge wave of assimilated American Jewish life that penetrated into every area of achievement in post-War America: in literature and the arts, in all the sciences, and the social sciences, in medicine, economics, linguistics, these second-generation immigrant Jews were everywhere, often transforming their disciplines, or inventing new ones, and the Nobel prizes and Pulitzer prizes duly followed. No area of culture or society was untouched by this phenomenon. I think of as a particular version, historically-localised, of Jews carrying and enacting the Abrahamic blessing: ‘through your descendents shall all the nations of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 22: 18).
Experimental particle physics is almost always a collaborative team endeavour and Perl was certainly part of such teams, but he was known as an individualist. His philosophy was summed up by his son who said about his father - and it was this that most caught my eye in the obituary - “He always advocated that you should look at what the crowd is doing and go in a different direction.” Pushing forward the frontiers of any discipline, in the sciences in particular, but also the humanities and the arts, or in religion, needs that capacity to ‘go in a different direction’ from the crowd.
I often think of this quality of going in a different direction to the majority as something ingrained in Jewishness, which in its origins was counter-cultural – the idea of one God was a radical breakthrough in thinking at the time, the notion of a creative force flowing through life and revealing moral and ethical laws; and Judaism, once it developed, always fostered dissenting and multiple opinions about its sacred texts, prizing new readings and fresh insights;  and historically the Jewish people have until recent times been a community that has chosen to, or has been forced to, go in a different direction from majority cultures, Christian or Islamic; and so on.  ‘Going in a different direction’ seems part of the blessing and burden of Jewishness.  
And yet nowadays within the Jewish community - particularly in the UK - this oppositional stance can be quite hard to maintain. Put your head above the parapet in relation to injustices in Israel, or same-sex ceremonies, or in opposition to brit milah, or (in Orthodoxy) to women’s participation in services, or any highly emotive issue (and Jews can be highly emotional about absolutely anything down to how you should pronounce left-over Yiddish words – do we suffer from tsores or tsurus? and do we deal with it by noshing something or nashing something, something like a bagel, or is it baygel?), nowadays if you take up a stance by going in a ‘different direction’ from the crowd, just wait and see what opprobrium you can attract.
I was thinking about this during this last week  in relation to the temporary art-installation that was set up at the Tower of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War, which seems seem to have spoken so directly to so many people: the moat filled with 888,246 red ceramic poppies, one for each of the British and Commonwealth deaths in that long and bloody and in many ways senseless conflict. Millions have visited it over these last weeks  – but anyone daring to criticise this project, anyone who has ‘gone in a different direction from the crowd’ has been pilloried in the press for their views.
For example Jonathan Jones, a respected and always-interesting commentator on the arts, found this instillation ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’. He was concerned firstly that it was too narrowly focused, too  nationalistic, because it didn’t acknowledge the huge losses suffered by other nations and peoples; and secondly  that it managed to ‘prettify’ the horrors of war: it failed in his view to convey anything of the reality of the mud-and-blood toxic futility and fearfulness and degradation of the trenches. Provocatively, he suggested an instillation that filled the moat with bones and barbed wire might have been a more disturbingly eloquent statement than the sentimentalised banks of poppies that people flocked to see.
I’m not taking sides in this, but his dissident view has helped me think more deeply into this question of memorialising loss, and how we do it personally and collectively. Cultural products that are ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’ often do have mass appeal. The Nuremburg Rallies would be a good example. It is easy to stir the emotions of groups by appeals to nationally-sanctioned stereotypical  images, or lofty words, or stirring music.

The red poppy has been an established part of British culture since its adoption by the Royal British Legion in 1921. So was the use of the poppies in this latest art-work a manipulation of an image, a way of deflecting attention away from the brutal ugly reality of war by substituting a lyrical, aesthetically-pleasing  field of flowers to distract from the jarring horrors endured by those who died?; or was it a way of conveying something of the overwhelming nature of the event that was both a mass historical event but one participated in and suffered by so many individuals, each unique yet each part of a shared human reality? So many individual deaths – and this is what it adds up to, countless suffering as far as the eye can see, yet still each one, counted?
How do we face loss? We had a poignant example of this question in our Torah portion this week. After the long description of the negotiations that went on to find Isaac a wife (Genesis 24), Rebekkah and Isaac finally meet - and in the 67th and final verse of the chapter we read that Isaac takes Rebekkah into his mother’s tent, and she becomes his wife ‘and he loved her and Isaac was comforted, acharei  imo = after/for his mother’. We might expect ‘after the death of his mother’. But no, the word ‘death’ is absent. We know this is what it means - but the storytellers have chosen to hide the word: they make us think about the death through its absence. Is this saying something about Isaac’s wish to deny the reality of death? The fantasy that if you don’t mention something it’s as if it hasn’t happened? Or is it a way of speaking about how the loss was healed  – the missing comfort he had received from his mother morphing into the new comfort he found with Rebekkah?
We have no description in the Torah, not even any hint, of what the death of Sarah, his fiercely protective mother, meant to Isaac. But we sense in this final verse how present she was for him as he takes this young woman firstly into his mother’s intimate space, her tent, and through the intimacy with her – ‘and he loved her’ – assuaging the loss he has suffered. More human connectedness, more closeness, more intimacy – this is one way of managing the feelings of loss, dealing with the feelings of absence.

We almost don’t have a good enough, rich enough, vocabulary to talk about what we do with the experience of loss. I just used the words ‘managing’ the loss, ‘dealing’ with the loss – but that is too business-like, too bureaucratic a language to evoke the powerful  and subtle stands of feeling that death evokes in us. Some people want people around them; some want to be left alone. There are no right or wrong ways here: it is about feeling one’s way through.  
One thing I do know, and here I do go in a ‘different direction from the crowd’, is that the modern jargon of talking about ‘closure’ after a death – and the idea is now prevalent in the aftermath of any injustice or painful event – I think this can be a very coercive and unhelpful idea to expect for oneself, or to have others expect of you. ‘Have you had closure yet?’ has become a modern mantra; but, talking of trite and false ideas, this is one - because it promotes an illusion.
It’s come into contemporary thought from American social psychology and originates in a 1993 paper from Arie Kruglanski about people’s desire for a clear and definite answer to their life questions and an aversion to ambiguity. So he developed what became known as the ‘Need for Closure Scale’ - but this concept of closure was gradually transformed from something descriptive of what people wished for into some kind of ideal about what they should have. Whereas psychological health is actually about being able to manage ambiguity, not-knowing, uncertainty – without collapsing into the straightjacket of false certainties.
Maybe in 1993 Arie Kruglanski thought he was going in a ‘different direction from the crowd’ but what his work has spawned is I think a pseudo-solution to a universal problem, a flawed notion that assimilating grief and losses and death into our lives is a process that can be ‘closed’, finished with. Whereas Jewish tradition recognises that losses are real, and lasting: they will happen to you and me, they happen to all of us, and the work of mourning can last a lifetime. We have to learn to live with our sadness, our regrets - or sometimes with our lack of sadness, or our relief; indeed we must acknowledge whatever feelings, for good or bad, that emerge in the wake of a loss.
Sigmund Freud once wrote a condolence letter in which he put his finger on something crucial about this. His own daughter Sophie had died in 1920 when she was 27, and nine years later, on what would have been her 36th birthday, he wrote to a colleague Ludwig Binswanger whose son had just died:  “we will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.”
And there was a man who knew what it meant to look at what the crowd were doing - and go in a different direction.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, November 15th 2014]

 

 

 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

We Need To Talk About Abraham

There’s a lot of pious nonsense talked about Abraham. Avraham Avinu: ‘our father Abraham’ –the original monotheist, the progenitor of the tribes that became the Israelite people, and the Arab peoples, and thus Islam; and – not to leave them out of the picture – the founding father of the third great and tragic religious tradition, Christianity. All three monotheistic religions have a dark and tragic thread entwined within them; and all three, as we know, trace themselves back to the legends surrounding Abraham, ‘man of faith’ – whatever that means. So, as Lionel Shriver might put it, ‘We need to talk about Abraham’.

This  week’s Torah portion is called Va’yerah, ‘And there appeared...’. It contains the stories in Genesis that follow Abraham’s change of name from ‘Avram’ – ‘High Father’, ‘Big Daddy’ – to ‘Avraham‘, ‘Father of multitudes’. They‘re the narratives (Genesis 18-22) that establish his status as foundational for the three monotheistic faiths. So who, or what, is Abraham? What is it that ‘appears’ to him, or with him, or in him, that makes him into a cornerstone of monotheistic tradition?
In these chapters – which are about ‘sight’ and ‘insight’, seeing and making something of what we see - there is, firstly, the hospitality, the openness to strangers: people appear, three strangers (chapter 18), and they are fed and sheltered. We see that generosity of spirit that seems a part of the archetypal mythology of the Middle East, a capacity to share and care that is ancient in origin and yet often seems so alien to the tribes of Britain today. Our pious politicians and their frenzied media masters are bound up in a sado-masochistic pact, the ongoing thrill of bondage to feeling pained and causing pain. They want to keep out the stranger from our shores - other Europeans, those from further afield, it doesn’t matter  - the latest manifestation of this being the decision to cut off the funding to help rescue those desperate enough to cross the seas in crowded rickety unseaworthy boats, braving the journey away from imperilled living towards the shores of Europe, these promised lands of salvation and hope, our streets supposedly paved with golden opportunities and easy lives. Like the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, some of our political so-called ‘leaders’ and their media hound dogs enact the antithesis of Abrahamic hospitality: ‘Let the strangers drown, pour décourager les autres...’

Old man Abraham, an immigrant himself, knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. And he knew what it meant to raise his voice when destruction was imminent; he was pulled in two directions, for he knew that the evil of Sodom and Gemorrah was real - but he knew too that God’s monomaniacal thinking had to be resisted, like any totalitarianism; that the evil was not only in the cities, but also in thinking that you should condemn a whole group because of the wrongdoing of  part of that group. So he starts to bargain God down: what if there are fifty innocent ones, 45, 40...?
For he recognises, and this is part of his greatness, he recognises that God is acting as a ruthless moral force that doesn’t see individuals but just sees the cause, the cause of ‘righteousness’ – and to hell, literally, metaphorically, with individuals, with the innocent who are to perish with the wicked. This ideology of moral righteousness has a deadly undercurrent and Abraham recognises it: from God’s certainty here in this text, to the Spanish Inquisition, to ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a straight line.
But Abraham is on the side of the individual who does not deserve to die alongside the guilty - though the innocent always die alongside the guilty.  Abraham is the human voice of conscience that holds God to account: ‘you can’t do this, you can’t condemn the group, the whole city, if there are individuals in it who are innocent’. And God, from the midst of his ruthlessness, seems to concede that Abraham has a point, as if he’s prepared to learn from his creation, so he half agrees with Abraham’s compassion and sets up a test for Abraham:  ‘how far will you go, how far will you bargain me down, how brave are you in your moral convictions?’ Almost as if God needs Abraham to teach him about compassion and justice.
So Abraham presses on:  what if there are 30 innocent, 20, 10? And God is thinking : ‘How far dare you go? Are you going to get me to save the world for the sake of just one innocent human being?  I will, of course, because you’re right - but do you have the courage to demand that I should care so much about life that I will spare this wicked world for the sake of one innocent man or woman or child? Dare you stake everything on the value of a single life?’ But Abraham fails – he fails to hold his nerve and defy God for the sake of the single human being. 
So he saves his own family, and moves on, leaving destruction in his wake. And he journeys on, for this is what he does, move on , restlessly, never pausing too long to reflect on what he leaves behind.  But as he moves on, with Sarah his wife, he is carrying the laughable knowledge that something extraordinary is still to happen, that a child will be born, when between them their time for bearing children is long over.
And as we read these chapters what appears to us is not history, but saga - a way of telling stories about how we got from there to here, from then to now; a way of telling stories which emphasises that continuity generation after generation is a marvel, a wonder: it makes no sense, there is no rational logic to it. We hear the storytellers spinning a tale in which the dramas of one family are the vehicle for the story of a whole people. Survival is a miracle.  Sarah gives birth when she is too old to give birth. This is laughable. She calls the child Yitzchak, ‘The one who generates laughter’. And we laugh at the absurdity of this tale, we become accomplices in the saga, we laugh at the absurdity of the tale of how Isaac, ‘Laughing Boy’, enters our national story.
And then our laughter turns to tears as we see Abraham caught up in the all-too-recognisable, all-too-human drama of Sarah’s jealousy of the other woman who has already given birth: Hagar, the Egyptian, the outsider, who has to be pushed out of the family into the desert to die with her son, Ishmael , Abraham’s firstborn son and heir. Abraham is shown as having the compassion to care about what is happening (Genesis 21:11): he’s very upset, he doesn’t want to do it; but – another test he fails – he doesn’t have the courage to stand up against Sarah’s fears, and protectiveness, and jealousy, and vindictiveness. He doesn’t stand up against the injustice in the family. ‘Just do what she says’, he thinks, he hears – he thinks he hears – ‘it’ll all turn out for the best’. But how are we ever to know that it’ll turn out all right if we turn our backs on injustice? What kind of a model is this for a religious tradition to have in its veins?
Yet the story – in that rich, dense, poetic prose that the Bible uses for its most dramatic narratives - reveals that the God who had been waiting for Abraham to bargain him into a corner and plead for the city to be spared even if there was only one innocent creature there, that God who destroys the innocent along with the guilty, unsettling us as he does so, disturbing our wishes for a God who is consistently on the side of life and of justice - that God is also the one who does, after all, care about the individual. Hagar weeps over her abandoned child, she weeps about her own desperate situation, she weeps from the midst of her own solitary state of having been abandoned , and in that typical Biblical twist while we hear the woman’s cries and see her tears, ‘God heard the voice of the lad’ (21:17). As if the child is an extension of her. As if the two are one, even though she has left him a distance away, to die. She cries out, but it is the unspoken suffering that God hears. Again we are unsettled, nothing can be assumed about this God. We can’t second-guess the divine.
So God opens her eyes – and our eyes – and Hagar sees the well of water that has been there all the time but that in her misery she has not been able to see; and life is preserved. And we see a miracle too, an everyday miracle that is in front of our eyes: that compassion is a quality that transcends ethnicity, that divinity is not exclusively the preserve of one people, one nation, one religion, that God’s care for the individual woman and child, for each human being, transcends tribe and race. This lowly Egyptian handmaid is held in mind by God, is seen by God, is cared for and responded to for she – representing all outsiders – is precious, is of infinite worth from God’s point of view, if not from ours. The story makes all this appear in front of our eyes in this sedrah that is all about sight and insight.
And then ‘after these things’ (22:1), the final test. How to convey that God is on the side of life, not death? Set up the ultimate test, dramatise the queasy boundary between sanity and madness by ordering  the execution of a child by his father – in the name of God - and see if humanity, Abraham, will see it through, or see through it. That’s the test. See if ideology, the ideology of obedience to the cause, trumps human feeling, compassion. Or whether Abraham can reach inside himself and find the deeper moral voice which puts the individual before the ideology. And it’s a close run thing.
Because Abraham goes all the way and prepares everything: the wood, the binding, the sacrificial space, the fire, all prepared with the cool, calm, logic of dedication to the cause, and the knife is raised to destroy the future because of an inability to see that God is testing him to find out if Abraham can think for himself, if he can utilise his own moral vision, his own conscience, his own humanity. ‘And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw, va’yahr...’ (22: 13). A moment of insight on which everything turned: God is on the side of life. Sacrifices may be necessary, but not sacrifices of people in the name of God.
Some might say that because Abraham even contemplated it, he failed the test. Maybe. But child sacrifice was the norm, it was the conventional,  ideologically sound practice of the times, so why wouldn’t people think – even Abraham - that their God would reflect the status quo? that God was on the side of tradition, as it were? But in the end this isn’t a story about the transition from child sacrifice to a different kind of morality. After all, child sacrifice still goes on: when children are victims of perverse religious ideology, murdered because ‘the devil is in them’; although it doesn’t need religion for a parent to kill a child, it happens the world over. For the story dramatises the reality that destructiveness is in every human heart, whether we acknowledge it or not, and it is always touch and go whether it is going to gain the upper hand. So child sacrifice happens, literally. And it happens symbolically: in trafficking and sexual exploitation, and economic exploitation. It’s universal, still.
The ‘binding of Isaac’ is a defining moment in the life of Abraham and his family. The news killed Sarah, the midrash says, and it’s true that we never see her again. And it traumatised Isaac, who carries the melancholia of a survivor all his life. And it ends God’s relationship with Avraham Avinu. God never talks to Abraham again. Or Abraham to God. And the texts don’t tell us who turned their back on who. Is God satisfied now that the new faith is secure in this family’s hands – now that he’s put the first two patriarchs through the most harrowing experience of their lives? Or is he disgusted that Abraham almost did it, without complaint, without a murmur: murder in the name of God? So does God withdraw from Abraham, in satisfaction, or in disgust?
Or does Abraham withdraw from God ‘after this things’? Does he find the whole enterprise of trying to understand and follow the erratic moral vision of the Divine One just too much for his poor old soul? Or does he withdraw into his memories and start constructing his memoirs, rehearsing the journey he’s taken, polishing his stories for the generations to come, editing and fabricating, weaving new fictions out of the dramas of his life.  “Abraham – Man of Faith”: catchy title, could make a best seller. Which indeed, for better and worse, it’s become.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, November 8th, 2014]

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

On 'Heretics' and Other Renewers of Religion


The name of Mohsen Amir-Aslani probably doesn’t mean anything to you. He was executed recently, aged 37, in Iran where he’d been imprisoned for the last nine years. He’d been leading sessions reading and interpreting the Qur’an but had been found guilty of heresy and insulting the prophet Jonah. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale - rather than as the Iranian religious authorities required, a literal account of a man who’d spent three days in the belly of a giant fish.
I share this event with you in sorrow rather than anger, not in the spirit of a polemic against the wickedness of Iran, or the intolerance of Islamists – there’s a noxious superabundance of that kind of rhetoric as it is. But my sadness is not only because of the needless death of one more human being in the name of so-called ‘religion’, but because of what it tells us – as if we didn’t know – of the dangers involved in reading religious texts the wrong way. What do I mean by ‘the wrong way’?
If you are dong heart surgery, or defusing a bomb, there are manuals filled with very precise details of what you need to do so as not to kill the patient, or blow yourself up. Although there is a human element in both procedures - you can do both carefully or carelessly and the results might be very different - there is no doubting that the words on the page detailing how you are supposed to proceed have to be understood literally and followed to the letter if things are to go well. Interpretation, improvisation, around the text is not forbidden – but it’s not advisable if you want things to go smoothly, because those are texts which are written, and ask to be read, with  precise attention given to the plain meaning of the words. There are right and wrong ways of reading how to proceed in an operating theatre or while dealing with an unexploded bomb.
We know that much blood though has been spilled, over the centuries, by those who believed that religious texts, religious narratives, had to be read as if they were life-and-death instruction manuals. The belief that they were - and that you had to read them as if they were - is part of the tragic history of all the monotheistic faiths. ‘I believe that this book contains the truth because my religion tells me it is so; my religion tells me that it is so because it has a book that says it contains God’s truth’ – this is the circular logic of fundamentalist thinking and it’s a virus that has infected, and continues to infect in various ways, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  
When Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition in 1633, accused of heresy because he was arguing for the Copernican view that the earth moved around the sun – that the earth was not the central celestial body around which everything revolved – one of the texts used against him was from the Biblical Book of Joshua, which contains a narrative where the sun is ordered to stand still. In the sacred logic of the Inquisition, you’d only command something to stand still if it has been moving. Therefore the sun must move round the earth, not the other way about. That had to be true because the Bible is a holy book that only contains the truth and Galileo’s heresy is clear when he arrives at a view of the world contrary to what is inscribed in scripture.
That the Bible contains elements of storytelling that draw on Middle Eastern myth and legend, as well as wordplay, puns and all the ingenious literary inventiveness of their human authors, was a heresy in Christianity at that time, as it still is in certain strands of Christian thinkin; as it still is in many strands of Islamic thinking; and is even the case in specific parts of the Jewish world to this day. The Jewish fundamentalists on the West Bank stake their claim to Palestinian land on their reading of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah states that God gave the land to the Israelite people and their descendents for ever – and although the boundaries of the land vary from text to text in different books of the Bible, such contradictions are irrelevant to a world view that is not all that different from those Iranian so-called ‘religious authorities’ – that the texts are divinely given, and they are true in a literal manner.
And even though literal interpretations of the Bible were always in Judaism played off against allegorical readings and homiletical readings, and mystical readings, even though the plain meaning of texts was always only one of four different parallel modes of reading and interpreting that all texts inspired - a way of thinking about texts that made the narrowing down of texts to only one meaning theoretically impossible – in spite of all this richness of what the tradition calls ‘midrash’, this midrashic imagination in relation to texts as vehicles capable of multiple meanings seems quite absent from Jewish fundamentalist discourse about the land of Israel: the boundaries of that land and who should live there. This is a betrayal of Jewish thinking - not the first time in Jewish history it’s happened, but the latest incarnation of it and the one with the most harmful and destructive consequences attached to it: for the Palestinians in their daily lives; and for the Jewish people in multiple ways, not least the integrity of their soul.
Baruch Spinoza was, famously, excommunicated by the Amsterdam elders of his Sephardic community for teaching that God was identical with and equivalent to the order which governs the universe. He wrote about “God, or Nature”, and held that God was not transcendent, over and above humanity, but that God was a principle of law, the sum of all the eternal laws in existence; that God was inherent and imminent in all things, material and spiritual; and that intuition and spontaneous knowledge reveals the presence of God more than the acquisition of facts. In developing this way of thinking about Judaism he was giving a philosophical language and framework to what Jewish mystics had been teaching for centuries, a religion of radical immanence. But out of the mouth of, and the pen of, this young man, this outsider – he was of Portuguese descent – it was too much for the religious authorities of the day to accept.
But this excommunication was his liberation. He was free then to think his own thoughts and he developed  ways of thinking objectively about the Bible – about its historical background and its use of literary genres – that opened up a whole new historical-critical approach that fed into the Enlightenment critique of dogmatic religion based on inerrant holy texts. He made it possible for us to think about ways in which religious texts contain truths which are psychologically rich, morally true - or morally complex - to think about the symbolism of texts, to use texts creatively, imaginatively, not for their eternal claims to truth but as ways of helping us toward more life-enhancing ways of living rather than ways of living that are imaginatively impoverished, or intellectually reductive.
So we can read this week’s Torah narrative of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) as a parable about human omnipotence and presumption – about the urge to have bigger and better, and the limitations of this way of thinking. Or we can read it as a parable about the problematic nature of having only one dominant language - whether it the language of fascism, or communism, or neo-liberalism: God looks down and says, as it were, ‘when everyone is united in one way of speaking or thinking there’s trouble ahead’. Mono-dimensional thinking breads fanaticism. The way forward is through multiplicity – many languages, many ways of thinking: pluralism. Babel, like Jonah, are mythic narratives: if they have truth in them it is not the truth of literalism but the truth of the imagination.
How often it is that it’s the so-called heretic, the outsider, who comes along and shakes up the tradition into new and interesting shapes, who liberates a religion’s imagination when it gets stuck, as it does – that’s what the Baal Shem Tov did in eastern Europe a hundred years after Spinoza, when he started that religious revivalist movement known as Hasidism (and he had probably never heard of Spinoza). That energy from the outside has stirred up Jewish thinking over and over again, often resisted by the powers-that-be (Hasidic leaders were often banned from preaching by their Mitnagdim opponents well into the 19th century). So, to adapt a phrase, blessed are the troublemakers, new interpreters, language players – they keep religion alive, fresh, on its toes. Blessed are the myth-rakers, myth-makers, risk-takers – they keep religion from going stale. They keep us honest.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on October 25th 2014. Some ideas in this sermon are indebted to Alan Wall, who shared with me a text of his entitled 'Bad Reading Habits'; texts also consulted include Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God' and 'The Bible: the Biography'.]

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Three Films for Sukkot


Just  as the lulav that we use on the festival of Sukkot is made up of three different trees - palm, myrtle and willow - I want to reflect on three films I’ve seen in recent months, bind them together for this season – and see if I can  add in that exotic etrog element along the way. 
The first, Ida, is still on at selected cinemas in the UK. Made in exquisite black-and-white by the Polish-born director, Pawel  Pawlikowski, (who’s lived in England for many years and developed a successful film and TV career here), in  this film we see him returning to his historical roots. Set in his homeland, the film opens in a convent where Anna, a trainee nun, is shown immersed in the devotion and calm and austerity of the enclosed Catholic order which has been her world since infancy - having come there as an orphan. We see the rhythms of daily life and the contained stillness of Anna, and there’s little dialogue until Anna is told by her strict mother superior that she needs to visit her only relative, an aunt whom she has never met, before she takes her final vows freely, once she’s had some contact with the outside world.
Inside the convent there is a kind of timelessness, it’s an ordered and unchanging world, but outside we see a Poland grey and bleak, immersed in the rigours of early 1960s Stalinism, with material impoverishment intertwined with spiritual impoverishment – her aunt, Wanda, has been a local judge dispensing state-approved justice to the perceived enemies of communism, but is now a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sexually amoral woman approaching her middle years and burdened, we gradually find, by secrets and regrets and an unassuageable pain connected with her past, and indeed the past of her country.
I am not going to give away too much of the plot, because I urge you to see this masterly gem of a film for yourself, but as the film proceeds you see how much of Poland’s past is buried (figuratively and literally) under the surface of daily life. Within the anonymous Catholic habit that Anna wears it turns out there is a young woman who has not known that she is Jewish – Ida Lebenstein, hidden after the murder of her parents during the War.
And inside the louche aunt who becomes determined to track down where Ida’s parents were killed and buried, is a woman embittered by the failures of her own youthful ideological commitment to communism,  a woman haunted by the unbearable knowledge that because of her commitment to the Polish anti-Nazi resistance, she’d left her child with her sister, Ida’s mother, only for the boy to be killed along with Ida’s parents.
As in Claude Lanzmann’s epic 1985 documentary Shoah, we are shown the post-War denial by those who took over Jewish homes and property about having any knowledge of anything to do with the past: although this film’s narrative is fictional, it is also a slice of history. Through the story of these two women (each isolated in their own way) we are seeing the story of a nation – it becomes a sort of parable – and it’s wonderfully done, with a Biblical economy of storytelling: sparse, fragmented, a national morality tale told, like the stories of Genesis, through characters interacting, where there is a certain indeterminacy of meaning, and gaps in the information provided, and moral judgements about good and evil are suspended or called into question, and yet the whole story hangs together in a psychologically true way.
We note the name, ‘Lebenstein’ – life is as hard as stone, as unyielding as the Catholic faith that both contributed through its theology to the anti-semitism of Poles, yet occasionally helped save them. And as unyielding as the communism that overtook post-War Poland, with Jewish enthusiasts for the state’s communist idealism taking up leadership roles out of all proportion to their surviving numbers.
Our sukkah, humble in its fragility and impermanence, stands in stark contrast to the monumental rigidity of ideological regimes, whether pre-Vatican II Catholicism or post-War Euro-Stalinism, both of which demanded a submission to authorities who thought they knew what is best for people. But the sukkah, open to the elements, is a reminder of our vulnerability - which is a truth about the human condition mirrored in a film that shows how the dramas of history also expose our human vulnerability. Between 1939 and 1945 Poland lost a fifth of its population, including 3 million Jews. Through the story of Ida and Wanda, the film shows us the human costs of this harsh history - but it’s crafted and filmed by artists who know that you can only speak of the true horrors and burdens of the past elliptically, glimpsing from an angle what is unbearable to look at full on.  
Ida is not another ‘Holocaust film’. And it’s as far from Hollywood as you can get. It’s a small masterpiece of narrative filmic art that’s not just about Poland and its history, but about universal questions of justice and indifference, God and godlessness, innocence and guilt, love and hate, meaning and meaninglessness, and how complex the relationship between these apparent opposites actually is.
My second film occupies very different terrain and is exactly twice the length of Ida’s pared down 80 minutes. But it’s equally wondrous. You may well have  seen it, or at least read about it: Boyhood by Richard Linklater, who made those three interlinked movies between 1995 and 2013, ‘Before Sunrise’, ‘Before Sunset’, and ‘Before Midnight’, each  with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy,  tracing the relationship of the couple over nearly two decades as the characters evolve from carefree youngsters in love with idea of love towards their middle years of adult complexity, discord and fragmenting hopes.
In Boyhood though, he has gone one step further. We watch a six year old child grow up into a college youth, twelve years of life unfolding scene by modest scene, without much plot, without much story, but filled with the intimate, everyday stuff of life: quarrels with his sister, a harassed working mother, her partners changing over time, step-children appearing then disappearing, changing technology, changing hairstyles, clothes, schools, music of each era from Britney Spears in the 1990s up till today, the craze for Harry Potter, the constant background growl of politics on TV, Clinton, the Iraq War, Obama.  Episodes from a life. 
But all the time that you are watching, although it’s a fictional scenario you are aware that it is the same actors evolving over time. Because this was Linklater’s vision. Like Michael Apted’s famous 7-Up documentaries here in the UK, tracing the lives of a group of British children from 1957 to the present, Linklater has done the seemingly impossible. He’s filmed a boy growing up, arranging for the cast to come together for  a few weeks each year, so although we know the actors are acting we also know that this is really them aging, year after year. And although you see it in the boy Mason’s parents, you see it most obviously in Mason himself as he grows in front of your eyes from boyhood to adulthood. Not different child actors, but the transformation over 160 minutes of 12 years of real life. And the pathos is in seeing the irreversible nature of time passing and people aging – and it sounds obvious, that we all get older year by year, and you might not think it would make a very compelling film, but it does (although I know some people found it boring).
It strikes me that it is the film equivalent of the text from Ecclesiastes that we read on Sukkot, that festival of rest amidst the desert wanderings: ‘For everything there is  a season, and  a time for every experience under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time for planting and a time for uprooting... a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for silence and a time for speaking...’ But whereas there is a sceptical voice in that Biblical book that says ‘Yes, and there is nothing new under the sun’, Linklater turns that on its head and says ‘No, everything is new under the sun, every day of your life – if you have eyes to see it...’
Linklater has given us a master class in holding the everyday sacred, and in how life is lived holding the tension between, or veering off between, opposite experiences, as the Ecclesiastes  text evokes; but nothing is repeated - there is just evolution over time, and the chance to make the best of it we can, day by day, year by year, shaping our own lives and being shaped by life. It may not sound as if this amounts to very much as a film, but as Mason grows in front of our eyes - as in time-lapse photography - we accumulate moments that build into something deeply satisfying, joyous and life-enhancing.
Which takes me to my third film, which is perhaps the opposite of  joyous and life-enhancing: it is painful and kind of soul-destroying, but utterly necessary  to see. Certainly if you want to have any credibility when talking about Israel and its history over the last 60 plus years in relation to the Palestinians, then it is a vital document for our times. Over the summer - it was actually during the latest Gaza war - I caught up with the 2012 Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers. (As it happens, in the UK it’s on BBC2 this Saturday night, October 11th, followed by a Newsnight discussion).
Director Dror Moreh interviews six retired heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret security service, who speak with surprising openness, frankness, about the ways in which their concern for Israel’s security saw them in constant tension with the political leadership of the State, who consistently failed to make the necessary compromises and strategic decisions which could have led to a more peaceful co-existence between the people who share this tiny strip of land. The accumulating narrative of archive footage and military footage interspersed with these voices is disturbing, devastating – and the section on how the Shin Bet foiled Jewish terrorist plots to blow up the Dome of the Rock is hair-raising.
These men are not bleeding-heart liberals, ‘lefties’. They are men with blood on their hands:  hard, hard men, living with the ambiguities and complexities of real life, everyday life, dealing with Arab terrorists and Jewish fanatics, trying to find pragmatic responses to chauvinism, zealotry and the wilful self-righteousness of those who – for religious or political reasons – believe, know, they have right on their side, and want to force it onto others, even unto death.  We know all about Palestinian murderousness, but  I’d forgotten the rabid hatred in Israel that preceded the murder of Yitzchak Rabin, the one leader who was prepared to compromise for the sake of peace; the poisonous atmosphere in which he was harangued as a traitor, compared to Hitler, with the Shin Bet fearful for his security but unable to persuade him to wear bulletproof protection when he addressed political gatherings. History turns on such decisions, on the pride of a man, on the naivety of a man who couldn’t believe that Jews would murder their own prime minister. 
The reviewer of this film in Ha’aretz – who described watching it as like ‘a waterboarding of the soul’ – bemoaned the way that in Israel, following the release of the film, these six retired old men, aging men, ‘who were once considered heroes’ were now  being ‘labelled traitors, because they dare cry out that the emperor has no clothes’. Perhaps the most poignant moment comes near the end when one of them says, quietly, simply: ‘We win every battle, but lost the war.’  If you haven't seen it, catch it this weekend, if you can. It’s a necessary film, and one in a curious way that is linked in subterranean ways to the story of Ida, and the way history – and in this case the history of the years between 1939 and 1945 – is still alive and toxic and infiltrates daily life in often unseen ways, and  certainly reverberates in the Israeli psyche up till today.
Life is fragile – we say it again and again. It is at the heart of Sukkot. Life is transient, it’s open to the elements that rain down on us, and that can sweep us away.  And yet in the tradition we call Sukkot ‘Zman Simchatenu’ – ‘the season of our rejoicing’. Because life, with all its starkness and uncertainty, is also a blessing: like the etrog with the lulav, the wonderful smell lingers in our nostrils, and we can appreciate how, as our lives unfold moment by precious moment, year by precious year, joyfulness is also grafted to our souls. In spite of everything that is antithetical to life, we can and do experience wonder and goodness; there is, as Ecclesiastes says, ‘a time for wailing – and a time for dancing’. On this festival, may our souls dance to the beat of life.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the morning of the first day of Sukkot, October 9th, 2014]

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Hybrid Jew


So it seems that after all that kerfuffle,  I won’t now be able to apply for my Scottish passport.  My father was born and raised in Glasgow and that meant that I would have been eligible for one.  But we’ve had our nationally televised Great British Break Off – and it’s not to be.
 I remember that word ‘kerfuffle’ from my childhood, from when I was a ‘wee lad’. I heard it a lot growing up, and I suppose I always thought it was Yiddish: it often went with that other word that described those who were involved in kerfuffles: ‘meshuggenahs’. So my mistake isn’t that surprising. Actually it’s Scottish, ‘kerfuffle’, meaning  ‘disorder/agitation’ – but it’s in every dictionary of the English language, or should we say ‘British’ language, as an informal word  for ‘fuss’ or ‘commotion’. But in its onomatopoeic weirdness ‘kerfuffle’ is  so much more evocative to my ear than those very ‘English’ words. Kerfuffle:  a concocted, fluffed up argument over trifles...
It’s quite common in childhood to grow up with a mishmash of languages in our head – I’m sure I absorbed lots of words from my parents, from family, from school, as well as from what I read; nowadays it’s also from globalised TV programmes and music. We are all internationalists in our speech, in our everyday talking, we are all speaking hybrid sentences all the time. ‘Mishmash’ – you hear it every day from BBC correspondents and Eton-educated man-of-the-people politicians – it’s come into so-called ‘English’ via Yiddish from the Middle High German. I even heard Nigel Farage use it. None of us are national purists when it comes to how we talk.
When it comes to language we can see what a strange concept nationalism is, how artificial a construct it is – however rigorously we try to police the boundaries and borders of our national language, immigrant words just creep in, or are smuggled in, even when they are not actively embraced in acts of colonisation: pyjamas, juggernaut, loot, bungalow, cot, cushy - even dear old ‘Blighty’.  And you can’t get a more British word than that Hindi expression. We’re all mongrels when we talk.
Hebrew is the same – not just modern Hebrew , Ivrit, the most successful language revitalisation project in history, a revival led by Eliezer ben-Yehudah at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century which took Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew and grafted into it Yiddish, Polish, English, German, Ladino and Arabic words – amongst others – to create a new language for a new nation-state, which has had to keep adding words as the years have gone by: so you have to use your intuitzia to sort out the informatzia you get from the televisia, for example,  because the compozitzia of a proportzia of it is - how to say it? – trivia.
You can never keep the field of language free from cross-fertilisation from alien imports. The wind of trans-national communication blows – like the divine spirit, the ruach Elohim fluttering over the face of the deep – and the seeds of language drift across boundaries and regenerate languages, keeping them creatively alive and fertile resources for us to use and misuse. Miscegenation is the norm, the name of the game.
It’s not just modern Hebrew. Classical Hebrew too is polyglot: God might have dictated the Torah  to Moses word by word, but if so then Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu was quite a linguist: maybe it was just His wicked sense of humour but something was going on when He decided to use a foreign word, in fact several foreign words, as names for Himself: El, El Elyon, El Shaddai, all derive from pre-Hebraic  Canaanite and Ugaratic words for various gods. And the decision to call His people Yisrael was just inspired: you can still hear the old Canaanite god El planted within the name of our people, idling away, as if to subvert any atavistic wish for Jewish ethnic purity for ‘our people’. Whenever we say Israel, Yisrael, we are reminding ourselves – if we have ears to hear – that ‘otherness’ is part of us, innately.
The Jewish people have inherited a name – Israel/Yisrael - that is both a religious identity and now, latterly, the name of a state. But both echo with this subversive reminder that our membership of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, includes parts of the past we might have thought we’ve left behind.  Being a Jew means being a hybrid – there’s no escape. We’ve always been taking from and reacting against the non-Jewish worlds we lived in. Our Jewish psyches are like an archaeological site, layered by history: dig inside us and we find the triumphs and tragedies of bygone years, the pride and the fears, traces of all the cultures we lived in over the generations: where do you think we got hamentaschen from on Purim, or cheesecake on Shavuot, or twisted challah on Shabbat? We took them over from the cultures we lived in and made them our own. Like El in Yisrael.
Our souls are like a cliff face open to the elements and revealing the variegated strata of centuries, and geologists of the psyche can rejoice in seeing how we are filled with impure mixtures of Ashkenazi sediments and Sephardi fossils and Islamic and Christian and pagan minerals. Whether Jews by choice or Jews by fate, you join your own story to that of Israel/ Yisrael – and that identity, (with the old Canaanite god El lurking in the background) is gloriously impure, mongrel, rich in the blessings of multiplicity rather than the one-dimensional fanaticism that attaches itself to notions of purity.
Jews above all should know the importance of this theme of the hybrid - because we have been the victims of a mentality that believed the opposite, that a people’s culture was and should be mono-dimensional, monolithic: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (one people, one nation, one leader) – that was the fantasy of ethnic purity and we know where it led, and where it still leads. And I am not alone in detecting it in some of the more extreme voices in the Knesset and the West Bank. And when we hear it we must call it by its name. From the depths of our multi-layered mongrel Jewish souls we call into question, call to task, fantasies of national or ethnic purity.
This hybridity is threaded through the Jewish story from the earliest times, and it operates on the fundamental  level of language, as I’ve said, as well as within the stories of the tradition – remember that mixed multitude of people who left Egypt along with the Hebrew people and lived and journeyed  with them and had children with them and produced the next generations of Israel through that 40 years of desert wandering? A story that tells us, just as an aside, that Moses married Zipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest. It’s as if the storytellers want to keep reminding us that ethnic purity is a fantasy. That we are all hybrids.
And nationalism, like religious ideology, can become an elaborate and sometimes, tragically, deadly serious game to hide this discomforting fact of life. Our world is filled with death-dealing in the name of nationalism, which becomes even more toxic when laced with religion – the Middle East is full of it self-evidently, and Russia and Ukraine come to mind, but they are only the tip of the iceberg - which is why for me, to return to the referendum, although I could see the emotional appeal of independence and Scottish nationalism, I am very happy still to be living in this ramshackle disordered disunited kingdom which is larger than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps part of what makes Britain ‘Great’ – in an era when that ‘greatness’ is much diminished, and much derided too in some parts (and I have some sympathy with critiques of our ‘Greatness’)  – but what makes it Great, I think, is that it implicitly recognises that these islands are home to many peoples, many tribes, and always have been: we are a cobbled-together nation that’s been able, historically, to absorb others - not just their languages, but their peoples, newcomers, immigrants, asylum seekers, century after century of them, including my Polish-born grandfather who found himself in Glasgow when he got off the boat – though I’m not sure he knew it has heading there.
It was more  for him a case, as for so many in those decades, of : we are just journeying ‘Away from Here. Away From Here: that is our destination’; ‘Away from Here’, Kafka’s words resonating into our contemporary world, when so many peoples from so many lands where there is ethnic strife and war and deprivation and hardship are making that perilous journey from fraught homelands towards the uncertain fate of a new life, ‘Away from Here’. And that our shambolic disunited kingdom can still welcome people of so many diverse lands and backgrounds and cultures is what confirms (if anything does any longer) this nation’s entitlement to still call itself ‘Great’.
But we Jews are going to have to fight for that, if we retain any belief in the importance of the notion of offering havens for the persecuted. We say it over and over, in the Torah, and in sermons you’ll have heard ad nausea:  ‘we have been strangers’ - so it is our duty, it is incumbent on us, to welcome the stranger. And if we have no vote when it comes to how our co-religionists do this in Israel, which is a whole other story, we do have a vote and a voice when it comes to this country. And this year we have an election coming up and we are going to be beaten over the head with the narrowing down, anti-immigrant, anti-European UKIP narrative, and other parties will tack to the foul winds blowing from that direction.
It’s at the New Year, in our liturgy, that we are exposed to this extraordinary part of the Jewish mythic narrative that says ‘This day all who enter the world pass before You...and you record, and count, and consider them’ :  what their fate, their life, will be in the year ahead. God is pictured as determining the destiny of every creature - that means Jews and non-Jews alike. This is part of the breathtaking chutzpah of Jewish life at this time of the year: we say, unashamedly, brazenly,  that the world revolves around us, what we do, what we fail to do, how we live, what vision we uphold, what vision we betray. The divine is involved, this story says, through the choices we make: our lives, and other people’s lives, are bound up with the process of reflection and prayer and renewed determination to live in certain ways, with particular ethical values, and with a morality congruent with our tradition. Questions of life and death, of who will live and who will die, are not only (of course) in our hands – but they are also in our hands. That’s the radical, discomforting claim of our tradition.
When I hear politicians of any kind trying to defend ethnic or national exclusivity – whether it is in Israel or in the UK – it’s then that I recognise the pluralism of identity in me. And how calls to promote an ‘us’ against a ‘them’ are OK for those who follow sport,  when it is literally a game - but are not OK when they are talking about the complexity of human beings.
You see, when I think about my own identity, part of me is British, and I enjoy that, my passport affirms it and there is a deep history behind that, much larger and richer than the relatively few generations my family has been here. And part of me is English – it wasn’t Britain whom I watched in 1966  winning the World Cup, it was the nation of William Blake and Turner and Jane Austen and Bobby Charlton. And part of me is a Mancunian and a Lancastrian who still feels connected to my roots in the north and finds southerners, North West Londoners, sometimes rather insular metropolitans living in a kind of bubble. And part of me is connected to my Scottish roots - but also to my mother’s hometown in the north-east, Sunderland. They are all parts of who I am - along with my sense of myself as a man with all the burdens and advantages that that brings; and a father; and a husband; and of course there’s my identity as a Jew, that’s close to the heart of me, but it sits alongside those other aspects of my hybrid self.
And as a Jew that means for me, inevitably through history and ‘elective affinities’ as Goethe called them, I’m a European in my guts, my kishkes; Europe - that trans-national disputed entity that I celebrate because it is larger than nationalism: so  there are textures of German culture, and French, and Polish, and Russian, that contribute to the tapestry of who I am, who I am in my hybrid Jewish self.
It’s why Dostoevsky speaks to me as much as, probably more than, Dickens. Kafka and Kierkegaard – Czech and Danish, Jew and Christian – seem to offer me a larger vision than the horizon-limiting Englishness of someone like Hilary Mantel, however lively and popular her prose. The broader perspective trumps the smaller one. “I am large, I contain multitudes” – that’s Walt Whitman, an American through and through. But still a sensibility I integrate into my own. What I’m trying to talk about here isn’t just about my personal identity; it’s, for want of a better word,  though I’m rather shy about calling it that, a moral position - it’s about seeing ourselves as bigger than the boxes our leaders, political or religious, want to put us in, broader in our horizons than national or ethnic cultures promote with their fantasies of superiority. I’m talking about trying to move away from the provincialism of national boundaries and tribal exclusiveness, working towards a sense of self that rejects a narrowing down, that is open to the global, the international.
And we need to be bigger than the national, than the tribal, than the ethnic, because the problems we face in this world are bigger than any nation can manage, any single nation can bear. The future of our planet is on the line, climate change is no respecter of national boundaries, and it’s laughable to think of nations protecting their own interests, their own businesses, their own economies, in the face of this trans-national challenge.
It’s like children protecting their own sandcastles against the advancing tide: ‘I’m the king of the castle, and you’re a dirty rascal’. We really have to grow up. That’s why for me, as a Jew, rooted in my own particular religious identity, I have to be an internationalist, I have to support the notion of being fully part of Europe, and the value of world bodies like the United Nations (whatever its faults) – I have to see the issues of the day through that extraordinary vision of the Hebrew Bible where we are given a divine voice that speaks the words of a universalistic vision from the midst of its particularism: The Eternal One called to Moses out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did ... if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, because the whole earth is mine.” (Exodus 19:5). “For Mine is the land – and you are but resident aliens with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). “The earth is the Lord’s and all who are in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24). There’s never been a time in human history when this universalistic vision within Judaism has been more urgent.
That’s part of why I’m so resistant to those appeals to the Jewish community  - from the Jewish Chronicle or the CST (our unelected, unrepresentative, self-appointed guardians) to retreat behind the barricades of our tribal ghettoes, retreat in fear from that bigger world which we belong to, and have so much to contribute to. Yes, there are people who don’t like us, but they might like us more if we were more open, more able to articulate a larger vision, more able to say that Jewishness is not only about self-preservation, and protecting our own narrow interests,  but it’s about upholding certain values: of concern for the underdog, embrace of the outsider, empathy for the deprived and the dispossessed, care for those cast aside by the relentless march of globalised capitalism with its disregard for individual well-being. Judaism is about a passion for righteousness and a hunger for justice. It’s not inward-looking, it’s about something larger than us.
When we cling to tribe, and nation, it’s because we are scared. ‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge’ – yes, Nachman of Bratslav is right – ‘but the essential thing’, he says, ha-ikkar, ‘is not to be afraid, at all’. lo-lefached klal. Let’s approach this New Year without fear, with hope, with belief, with the knowledge that our vision, our large Jewish vision, will support us, and sustain us, and can make the world a better place. Kayn yehi ratzon- may this be God’s will.
[slightly expanded from a sermon given on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, September 26th, 2014]